Five fishermen aboard the Miss Ally were never found after their boat sent out a distress signal on February 17, 2013.
They were fishing for halibut, having departed from Woods Harbour in Shelburne County, Nova Scotia, on February 12, 2013: Capt. Katlin Nickerson (21), Steve Cole Nickerson (28), Joel Hopkins (27; father of two), Tyson Townsend (25) and Billy Hatfield (32). Billy Hatfield was from Cape Sable Island while the others were all from Woods Harbour.
They were fishing “the gully,” a popular fishing spot where the ocean floor drops near Sable Island. Veteran fisherman Sandy Stoddard was fishing there too, only about 110 or 115 miles away from the Miss Ally. When Stoddard heard that two weather fronts were coming together and intensifying, he decided to haul his gear on February 16 and head for port in Arichat the next morning. He contacted the Miss Ally’s captain, Katlin, to let him know about the weather and his plans to head for port. Katlin planned to do the same as Stoddard. But when Stoddard called him on the evening of the 16th, Katlin reported that they hadn’t been able to find their gear because they had lost use of their power inverter, used to power the bright deck and search lights required for the fishermen to do their work. They planned to lay anchor and retrieve their gear the following morning. Stoddard called Katlin around 6pm on February 17th, and Katlin reported that they had collected their gear and were on their way to port in Sambro. The northwest wind had just started.
Stoddard remained in touch with Katlin until about 10:40 pm. Despite snow, hurricane-force winds, and large waves, Katlin did not report any serious trouble, although he did want to contact the Coast Guard so they could track him. But his radio wasn’t working so Stoddard made the call. Twenty-six minutes later, the Miss Ally’s emergency locator beacon transmitted a distress call via satellite. Stoddard believes that whatever happened to the Miss Ally happened all at once.
Two Canadian Coast Guard vessels and Royal Canadian Air Force helicopter were dispatched on February 18 to the area of the boat’s last known coordinates, about 120 km off the coast of Liverpool, NS. Earlier that day, a US Coast Guard jet reported seeing the overturned boat and a life raft, although they were not immediately found by Canadian search and rescue, despite the use of infrared and heat-sourcing technologies. Stormy weather hampered search efforts, initially limiting visibility and gradually forcing the search area to expand given the strong winds. During a press release, a search and rescue team spokesperson estimated that survivability in the rough, frigid waters was 24 hours. The Coast Guard called the search off at 6pm on Feb 19 due to the unlikelihood of survival.
Unhappy with the federal search and rescue efforts, the crew’s families arranged for a private boat with four divers to search the waters off the coast of Woods Harbour. Other boats joined the search, despite a forecasted storm. In response, the Canadian military sent out one more aircraft. The military’s aerial search on February 21 revealed only shattered pieces of the Miss Ally’s hull.
But on February 22, officials admitted that the debris may have been items from the Miss Ally’s deck, and that her hull might still be intact. The fishermen’s families believed that the crew might have survived in the hull and wanted it checked to be sure. The official search resumed. At about 9:40 am on Saturday, February 23, the intact hull was located.
Later on Saturday, the private rescue boat and dive team reported that they had searched the Miss Ally’s hull. They reported that neither wheelhouse nor sleeping quarters were attached, and that there were no bodies in the hull. The RCMP, Department of National Defense, and Coast Guard sent a vessel to confirm the private divers’ report, which it did on Sunday, February 24. The official search was called off for a second time.
The four private divers who spent 30 hours trying to locate the Miss Ally and who dove under its hull were awarded Nova Scotia medals of bravery. The bodies of the five crew members were never found.
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